TB: I have to ask this… Do you really like Green Acres?
DF: I love Green Acres. And I don’t love it in a campy, “Ohhh, it’s soo funny,” I love it on a legitimate respect for it as a great work of comedy. I think it is one of the most tightly and imaginatively written shows ever done on television. It was messing around with structure in a really inventive way. They were setting up these incredible absurdist jokes and running jokes in every scene, weaving them in and out.
TB: Very much like Newsradio does…
DF: A lot like Newsradio does. I think it’s been a big influence on the show. And the other thing they do on Green Acres that people don’t notice is that everybody in that show plays it deadpan except for Oliver. Eddie Albert was the only guy that went over the top. Like Mr. Ziffel is really low-key and Eva Gabor was really deadpan… None of them ever pushed a joke. Eva Gabor might be commenting about the credits coming up at the end of the show, but she wouldn’t be goofy, she would sound sincerely interested in why the credits were appearing. They played everything like it was real, which is the only way you can play it in absurdist comedy.
Though Green Acres was executive-produced by Paul Henning, it wasn't really his show; while Henning was writing nearly every episode of The Beverly Hillbillies, almost every episode of Green Acres was co-written by its creator, Jay Sommers. I wish I knew more about him. Like Henning, Sommers started in radio and brought the sensibility of radio comedy to TV sitcoms; in fact, Green Acres was a re-working of a radio sitcom Sommers created, Granby's Green Acres (starring the amazing voices of Bea Benaderet and Gale Gordon). Like Henning with The Beverly Hillbillies, Sommers -- and his writing partner Dick Chevillat -- filled Green Acres with things that had been fairly common in radio comedy but not so much in TV, things like story arcs, crossovers, and kind of a surreal anything-goes sensibility in contrast to the down-to-earth, observational tone of most TV sitcoms.
But unlike Henning, who started to kind of spin his wheels after the first couple of seasons of The Beverly Hillbillies, Sommers got weirder and weirder as Green Acres went on, pumping up the surrealism and using the show to make fun of just about everything, including its Henning-created cousin; an episode in the second season features the residents of Hooterville putting on a stage production of The Beverly Hillbillies, and finding the script needs to be tweaked ("We wrote to Hollywood and asked them to send a half-dozen scripts and we'd pick a funny one"). How or why he got that way, I don't know, but I'm glad he did.
Because of my admiration for Sommers and Henning and their radio-on-TV sensibilities, I wish someone would release the first two seasons of Petticoat Junction to DVD or at least to syndication. Sommers was the head writer on those two seasons, and I'm told that they have some of the absurdism of Green Acres and the early Beverly Hillbillies. But those two seasons were not included in the syndication package, because they're in black-and-white. What we see of Petticoat Junction, then, are the color episodes, which are pretty dismal, but neither Sommers nor Henning were involved with most of those episodes. I wouldn't mind seeing the B&W ones, then; when it comes to radio-style comedy on television, you can never get enough.